Big money for big views on ‘Wapiti Ridge’ open space

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
Robb WilliamsonA two-mile ridge extending northeast from Snowmass Village is the centerpiece of the proposed Droste open space, to be called Wapiti Ridge Mountain Park if it is acquired by the public.

ASPEN – Pitkin County is seeking an unusual partner in its push to acquire the single priciest parcel in the nearly 20-year history of its Open Space and Trails program – the people who will actually use it.

Local government officials unveiled the collaborative plan last month to acquire 742 acres from the Droste family – a scenic ridge separating the Brush Creek and Owl Creek valleys that has been described as the donut hole in a patchwork of already-conserved lands and a bridge that links Aspen and Snowmass Village like no other connection. The price is $18 million.

To the general populace, the Droste property encompasses the verdant, largely undeveloped meadows along Brush Creek and the undulating hillside that serves as a backdrop to the valley floor along most of the drive up Brush Creek Road from Highway 82. Painted in the russet, ocher and green of autumn, dotted with clusters of golden aspens in the deeper draws, the oak-covered hillside is stunning, particularly from the Brush Creek side. But it’s the top of the two-mile ridge – a place most people have never been – that’s winning the hearts and minds of all who visit.

“Every time I come up here, I get a little gaga,” admitted Dale Will, the county’s Open Space and Trails director. “There’s this ‘oh, wow’ moment when you get to the ridge.”

“It’s one of the most awe-inspiring spots in our whole valley, in my opinion,” said Jeff Woods, a Snowmass Village resident and head of the city of Aspen Parks Department. “It’s the one place where you can stand and see both of our communities.

“Every person I’ve taken up there – it’s like, wow – you feel like you’re in an airplane looking over the whole community,” Woods added.

Still in private hands, the property remains off-limits to the public except during authorized tours. Jeep tours are planned and organized equestrian and mountain bike outings may be in the offing.

Early on, though, Will began escorting elected officials and other government staffers up to the ridge, as the partnership of buyers – the city of Aspen, town of Snowmass Village and the county – coalesced.

Woods counted himself among the dubious – why would Aspen chip in $1 million or more for open space on Snowmass’ doorstep? – until he saw it.

“When I got up there, I saw our land touching it – on two flanks,” he said.

The property’s connection to existing open space parcels is but one of its selling points. The 360-degree views it offers are undoubtedly another.

Even Snowmass Village Mayor Bill Boineau questioned the purchase, until he stood on the spine and took in the sweeping views of the upper Roaring Fork Valley.

“Before then, I was suggesting to people, let them develop those homes up there,” he said shortly after the proposed purchase was made public. “When I got up there – it’s an incredible piece of property. It is definitely one of the places where you can see everything.”

The Droste property has long been in the county’s sights as open space. In fact, the county and Snowmass Village had already conserved some 600 acres on the Brush Creek Valley floor in two separate easements purchased from the Drostes, at a total cost of $7.9 million.

The proposed latest purchase means buying outright 421 acres that the two governments have already preserved through a conservation easement, which smacks of paying twice for the same property, but this time, said Will, the dollars are really buying development value near the ridgeline, where the county last year approved sites for nine large homes.

The Drostes had long attempted to win county development approval for the land. The plan approved in August 2009 was five years in the making, and came on the heels of a previous development plan that was shot down by the county, litigation and a 2004 land-use battle in the state Legislature.

Ironically, said Will, it was the long-sought development approvals that set the stage for a deal to preserve the ridge as open space.

“It was the land-use approval that let us have a rational discussion about how to appraise it,” he said.

An appraisal arranged by the county pegged the value of the property at between $19 and $21 million. On the market, the asking price for the lots started at $3.3 million and the entire development was offered for $25 million. The $18 million price tag for an open space deal was considerably less than had been offered in previous talks, Will said.

The three-phase purchase contract with brothers Bruce and Peter Droste calls for $10 million to be spent this year, and another $8 million in 2011. Due first is $500,000 to be paid by the county this fall to lock in the option to purchase the entire acreage and acquire 108 acres that will allow a link from the Cozy Point South open space, at the east end of the Brush Creek Valley, over the ridge to the Owl Creek Trail. It also secures a missing link in the soft-surface equestrian trail in the Brush Creek Valley.

By Dec. 15, another $9.5 million is due for five of the nine lots. The sum includes $5.5 million from the county, $1 million from the city of Aspen, $2.5 million in hoped-for Great Outdoors Colorado grant funds, and $500,000 from private donors.

The final $8 million would be due Dec. 15, 2011, for the balance of four lots and the remaining acreage.

Snowmass Village will ask its voters Nov. 2 to approve a tax measure that will generate $2 million toward the purchase over seven years, starting in 2011. Voters there will have the only public veto power on the matter, though there may be broader opposition to the proposal. A recent online Aspen Times poll indicated readers were split on whether or not $18 million should be spent on the land.

The Snowmass Village Financial Advisory Board recommended contributing just $1 million in light of the town’s projected budget challenges, but the Town Council agreed to an approach that would essentially replace an expiring property tax with a new one to fund the Droste purchase.

The town won’t have to borrow money, either. The county would front Snowmass’ share, and be repaid as Snowmass collects its $2 million. Of the $8 million due at the close of next year, the county would put up $4 million, $2 million would come from Snowmass and another $2 million would come from private donors, barring additional GOCO money (assuming the initial $2.5 million application is successful) or another city of Aspen allocation.

In all, the county has committed to spending $10 million on the purchase, from tax dollars devoted to open space. Whether it will cover a shortfall if other sources come up short remains to be seen.

“My marching orders are, we don’t want to spend more than $10 million,” Will said. “I have to prove to the commissioners that we pulled out all the stops, then they have to make the hard decisions.”

“We’re committed to $10 million and we’re going to work hard for the rest,” said Commissioner Jack Hatfield.

The game plan to raise the private funds includes sitting down with “some significant folks who look at that ridge from both sides,” said Tim McFlynn, chairman of the county Open Space and Trails board. “It’s an extraordinary opportunity to partner with citizens and private landowners to create this permanent mountain park.”

The Open Space and Trails program has turned to the public once before, in 1997, to contribute to the purchase of the Hummingbird Lode, a 10-acre private inholding on a ridge above the Hunter Creek Valley near Aspen. The fundraising campaign fell well short of an $868,000 goal; pledges and contributions amounted to about $168,000.

The Hunter Creek Valley is a favorite Aspen backcountry playground. So is Smuggler Mountain, where the city and county have purchased various private parcels, culminating in the 2005 purchase of about 157 acres for $15 million.

“I personally think the public is going to get as much enjoyment out of this parcel as they get out of Smuggler,” Will said.

The Droste ridge gets perfect scores for its aesthetic, wildlife and recreational attributes – three of the Open Space program’s four drivers. The fourth, preserving agriculture, was accomplished with previous conservation of the irrigated meadows on the valley floor, Will said.

The Droste property provides critical winter habitat to the Burnt Mountain elk herd and is a key piece of a migration corridor that local government has worked to protect with various open space acquisitions and conservation easements. County commissioners consulted with the Colorado Division of Wildlife as they wrestled with the homesites they ultimately approved last year, and hired an independent wildlife consultant as well, to advise them on how best to protect big game from human impacts.

The elk have received most of the attention, but the parcel offers other natural attributes. Its flora and fauna have yet to be surveyed, but Stephen Ellsperman, Aspen parks and open space director, was excited by what he found on the ground there.

The property, in the Droste family’s ownership since the early 1960s, has retained its native plant communities. Absent is the degradation typical of heavy agricultural use, he said.

“It’s really a neat little ecological gem up there,” Ellsperman said.

Still, its not the native forbs and grasses, but the elk that tromp across the snowy ridge and linger in its draws during the winter months that have inspired the proposed name of the open space – Wapiti Ridge Mountain Park – in reference to an American Indian word for elk.

The land would be closed to recreation in the winter. In the summer, hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians will have a chance to enjoy the views. The land is the missing piece among some 2,200 acres that have already been purchased or conserved, creating a trio of portals to the ridge – from the Owl Creek Trail, the city’s Cozy Point Ranch equestrian facility on the Brush Creek side and through Hidden Valley on the Snowmass Village end. The latter route, traversing through the existing Seven Star open space to the west of the Droste property, will provide the most gentle climb up onto the ridge, once the trail connections are built, Will said.

“It’s an incredible opportunity to expand what is arguably already one of the best collections of single-track in the state, if not the country,” gushed Snowmass Town Councilman John Wilkinson, an avid mountain biker and unabashed enthusiast when it comes to the bike trails that surround the town.

Equestrians will have access to both the ridge and a completed equestrian path in the Brush Creek Valley, where a one-mile gap in an existing trail will be completed as part of the purchase.

Aspen’s Cozy Point Ranch, once part of a larger property that offered backcountry riding opportunities, was hemmed in by the time the city purchased it in 1999. The Droste property would offer new opportunities for equestrians directly from the ranch, said Monroe Summers, who manages Cozy Point under a lease with the city.

“We look at it as a real asset. We think it’ll be great for our clientele,” he said. “We’re hoping we can put it to good use.”

For the Droste family and the county, the pending open space deal, if consummated, would conclude a protracted and sometimes contentious relationship.

The family’s property, originally 900-plus acres that will mostly be preserved from development in its entirety with the latest deal, was originally acquired by the family in 1963, according to Peter Droste.

“There can’t be a better solution to this whole thing,” Droste said.